Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chimney smoke

Again with Mr. Moriarty. What can I say. There is a bewildered fascination with his two big books, Nostos and What the Curlew Said. In a curious inversion, I feel like Beatrice being led by Dante through a multilayered universe of the poet's own invention.

"There is the moment when we see something otherwise quite ordinary," writes Moriarty, "such as smoke rising from our chimney, and we know, seeing it, that the universe is stranger, maybe queerer, than we can suppose."

To which I say amen. To which most scientists would say amen. The question is: What do we make of the unsupposed queerness?

"The unknown modes of being that Wordsworth talked about are in things, not beyond them, and it is for that reason that modern science is a premature closing of our account with reality," says Moriarty, some pages later, a simple statement that both gets it and doesn't get it.

Gets it in that, yes, whatever as yet unknown modes of being exist in the world of our perceptions, they are in things, not beyond them. That is, they are at least potentially available to our tentative suppositions. We need not have recourse to the supernatural; or, at least, there is no compelling empirical reason to invoke a supernatural agency of our own devising.

Doesn't get it when he says that "science is a premature closing of our account with reality." Science closes no accounts. The story of science has been a story of unfolding wonders, and there is no reason to suppose that the wonders will not continue.

In Michelangelo's Creation, there is that famous gap between the out-reached fingertips of God and Adam. Science plies its trade in the gap, a gap that may be narrowed but (very likely) never closed. Occasionally, as when observing chimney smoke, the gap may seem to crackle with a divine spark, but the spark may just as well emanate from within things, not beyond them.

The greater presumption, it seems to me, is not science prematurely closing the books on reality, but in supposing that humans can -– through the grace of chimney smoke, or revelation –- reach across the gap and touch the finger of God.